Mandala’s Edge

By Ben Shread-Hewitt (@HewittShread)

Outside the bustling city of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand is overwhelmingly rural and mountainous. Its landscape is starkly divided – barren rocky fields abut verdant cloud forests, and small village horticulture stands next to vast monocrops of maize. It is a region in the middle of a long – and now rapidly accelerating – process of ‘frontiering’, in which the socio-ecological systems of peripheral regions are reoriented for the consumption of the core. [1]

This process is by no means unique in the developing world. However, Thailand is exceptional in one way: it never underwent any comprehensive colonial project. The political ecology of frontier making – its geographies, economics, logics, and social systems – almost always emerge in postcolonial contexts, with the rift between core and periphery already having been demarcated by previous imperial systems. [2] This frontier dichotomy in Thailand was instead the result of a native and non-colonial political system. This unique political lineage, how it transitioned into modernity, and the socio-ecological frontiers it has enabled are all important to understanding contemporary environmental conflicts in Thailand.

Colonialism and Frontiers

The basic thesis of modern frontier assemblages is the constant exportation of the core’s ‘logic’ to its periphery. These economically, politically, or geographically ‘peripheral’ regions are then characterised by dynamic and unfolding reorientations of their socioecological systems in favour of the needs of the state ‘core’. [3]

This is often an aggressive, extractive economic system, and bears obvious similarities with the ecological legacies of colonialism, such as the Portuguese destruction of the Atlantic rainforest. Chiang Mai province is a textbook example. The overexploitation of the rich tropical forest soil is done almost entirely in service of export economics, removing nutrients from the local environment and redirecting their flow – in the form of monoculture cash crops – towards faraway ‘cores’ [4]

The frontiering process drives out smaller farmers in favour of agri-business, leaving a remnant class of indebted, fertiliser-dependent smallholders who must constantly clear-cut forests to find more fertile soils. Frontier economies such as this are often violently upheld, and again Chiang Mai is no exception. Campaigns of assassination and intimidation, directed at peasant organisations and economic reformers, have been ongoing since the 1970s. [5]

This description above could loosely describe contemporary environmental conflicts in either Indonesia, Peru, or Nigeria. But in almost all other examples, these issues trace their lineage to colonial land use. Thailand represents a relatively unique historical situation in that its frontier environmental conflicts can be traced back to the ‘Mandala-State’.


Many of the Southeast Asian polities were Indianised at various periods – and through this process developed the political practice of the Mandala-state, a system of governance loosely based on Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. [6] In these Mandala-polities, an urbanised political core was the central locus of a sphere of influence which became increasingly diffuse and segmented as distance and geographical barriers increased. [7] These governance structures are often referred to as ‘theatre-states’ because power and hegemony were exercised largely via spiritual and temporal prestige. [8] Despite the strong psychosocial pull of the centre, subordinated peripheries were thus able to remain relatively unincorporated both materially and geographically. [9] This historical process did not just create diffuse geographical demarcations, but different types of agricultural and environmental landscapes, distinct in their localities but connected via the wider socio-political sphere that maintained a feedback system between them.[10]

This close linkage of developed urban centres and socio-spatial communities on the periphery, relatively untouched by capitalist production well into the 20th century, was the perfect setup for frontier-style economic exploitation. [11]


Despite losing a few satellite states and undergoing unequal treaties, Thailand passed through the colonial era relatively intact to emerge as a modern nation-state with an unbroken succession from its earlier Mandala-state structure.[12] This system of gradational variation in political, economic, and ecological styles was reimagined by the modern, capitalist nation-state as a Frontier Zone, and the contours of the Mandala became the rifts of the frontier. Mandala-states are thus not ‘responsible’ for the frontiering, but they provided the geographies to be co-opted for it; in a sense, they allow neo-colonial geographies to develop without a preceding colonial period.

Whilst in colonial frontier legacies, there is a more obvious lineage between previous modes of exploitation and current modes, the Mandala-to-Frontier evolution represents a more radical change. Rather than the fluctuating political ecology represented by the Mandala, whereby the feedback system between edge and centre was used to maintain a mutually tolerable level of political cohesion, the frontier system reworks existing socio-ecological conditions into zones of extraction, and zones of consumption.

The Mandala system, already correlated to zones of increased separatist violence, has obvious application to both historical and contemporary studies of political ecology. [13] The understanding of this frontier and its unique lineage can better inform us of, and suggest better alternatives to, many of the environmental, political, and social conflicts that fill the frontiers of Thailand.

[1] Ioris, A.A.R., 2020. “Chapter 1: Introduction”, Frontier Making in the Amazon, Cham: Springer, (pp. 73-100).

[2] Chase-Dunn, C.K. and Grell-Brisk, M., 2019. World-System Theory. Oxford University Press.

[3] Cons, J. and Eilenberg, M. eds., 2019. Frontier assemblages: the emergent politics of resource frontiers in Asia. John Wiley & Sons.

[4] Hayward, D., 2018. From Maize to Meat: Placing maize production in Thailand within a global poultry value chain. Southeast Asia, Thailand: Greenpeace.

[5] Haberkorn, Tyrell (2011). Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law, and Violence in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books. p. 3.

[6] Dellios, R., 2019. ‘Mandala: from sacred origins to sovereign affairs in traditional Southeast Asia’. Culture Mandala, 13(3), p.9428.

[7] Chutintaranond, S., 1990. ‘Mandala, Segmentary State and Politics of Centralization in Medieval Ayudhya’. Journal of the Siam Society, 78(1), pp.89-100.

[8] Geertz, C., 1980. Negara. Princeton University Press.

[9] Grave, P., 1995. ‘Beyond the mandala: Buddhist landscapes and upland‐lowland interaction in north‐west Thailand AD 1200–1650’. World Archaeology, 27(2), pp.243-265.

[10] Biggs, D., 2020. ‘Editorial Foreword: Introduction: The greening of Southeast Asian history’. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 51(4), pp.510-517.

[11] Chutintaranond, S., 1990. ‘Mandala, Segmentary State and Politics of Centralization in Medieval Ayudhya’. Journal of the Siam Society, 78(1), pp.89-100.

[12] Stuart-Fox, M., 1995. ‘The French in Laos, 1887–1945’. Modern Asian Studies, 29(1), pp.111-139; Streckfuss, D., 1993. ‘The mixed colonial legacy in Siam: Origins of Thai racialist thought’. Autonomous Histories, Particular Truths: Essays in Honor of John RW Smail, Monograph, 11.

[13] Paik, C. and Vechbanyongratana, J., 2018. ‘Mandala Matters: Former Tributary States and Modern Civil Conflict in Thailand’. Working Paper. At < pdf>, accessed December 4th 2020.

Image Credit: Author’s own

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